Portland State University’s Archaeology Roadshow is aimed at bringing the science of studying past human cultures to life. PSU professor emerita Virginia Butler organized the event and hopes next year it can get back to an in-person event so that people can get up close and personal with the artifacts. But since it’s virtual this year, it has the potential to reach more people than ever before. Presentations include the archaeological discovery of a historical Chinatown in the Dalles, the relationship between video games and archaeology and indigenous perspectives of archaeology and heritage. We talk with Butler and archaeologist Diane Teeman with the Burns Paiute Tribe.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. In 2012 Portland State University started its Archaeology Roadshow, to bring the science of digging up human culture and artifacts to life. This year the event is happening virtually, with live lectures and panel discussions throughout the month of June. It means that visitors won’t be able to get up close and personal with found objects, but on the flip side more people could take part than ever before. PSU professor emerita Virginia Butler organized this event. She joins us now as does one of the presenters, Diane Timon is an enrolled member and the director of the culture and heritage department for the Burns Paiute Tribe. Virginia Butler and Diane Timon, it’s great to have both of you on the show.
So, Virginia Butler first: this event, as I understand it, came out of a public archaeology class that you taught at PSU. What is public archaeology?
Virginia Butler: Public archaeology is a developing interest within the broader field of archaeology, that is trying to engage the public about all of the many values that archaeology has. It is an effort to push people beyond the kind of glittering appeal of the find - the treasure - the kind of “Indiana Jones” enthusiasm and get people to appreciate these more profound understandings and values that this archaeology has both for professionals and occasional archaeologists, indigenous peoples, all of us.
Miller: What is public archaeology in contrast to?
Butler: Good question. Public archaeology would be in contrast to an approach that thought archaeology was about professionals; figuring out what they have, addressing particular questions and then publishing those finds in journal articles that the public wasn’t really privy to, or [it] wasn’t accessible to them. So this is trying to break down the barriers that have often existed between the more professional approach to archaeology and the communities that are out there available to this broader understanding.
Miller: Diane Timon, what does public archaeology mean to you?
Diane Timon: To me public archaeology means things like a roadshow, where archaeologists go out into communities and talk to the communities about the values and the research that’s being done in archaeology.
Miller: Virginia Butler, how did you go from that class at PSU to an event that’s fully open to the public? That really is much more about the public.
Butler: The wonderful thing about teaching is what it teaches you, what it gives you. And in the late 2000s, I started getting more interested in this public archaeology world and decided to teach a class in it at Portland State. In the context of that class we read about models of how people - professionals - engage the public and one approach was this archaeology fair-type event that we have been hosting, where organizations like tribes, universities, [and] federal and state agencies create papa-kind of temporary exhibits, where visitors can come and engage and really break down those barriers, as I mentioned before.
We read about those models and I had a group of students that were so excited about trying to do public archaeology that in week two of a 10 week class, we decided to host one ourselves. We made connections with OMSI and we borrowed their auditorium for a day. We have connections with the Portland area community and a lot of the federal and state archaeologists. We basically created in the space of 10 weeks one of these events, [and] we had such a great time that we decided that we had to keep doing it and try to expand it and bring more partners to it, and start planning at a much earlier phase, so that it could be bigger and even richer.
Miller: Speaking of big and rich, what were these events like, pre-pandemic?
Butler: These vary. But the beginning project started on Portland State campus and in a given five-hour period we would have federal and state agencies like the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the state archaeologists, [and] Tribal communities come and basically create a temporary exhibit: a table, an activity, that would showcase living history so that visitors to PSU campus could start to have these face-to-face interactions with an actual archaeologist, an actual heritage specialist. After a few years of doing that we decided we needed to go beyond Portland and we had connections in eastern Oregon, [and] we developed an archaeology roadshow in Harney County, and then a few years after that we created one in Bend.
So that’s what this has been pretty pre-pandemic, a statewide celebration of archaeology, trying to move it out of Multnomah County [and] downtown Portland and really share it out with the broader citizenry of Oregon.
Miller: Diane Timon, Virginia Butler there was mentioning going out to Harney County. What has this road show meant to you, as the director of the culture and heritage department for the Burns Paiute Tribe?
Timon: The roadshow and other activities like this, with public archaeology, are sometimes a double-edged sword. The positive aspect of it is that we have professionals who are trained, schooled in archaeology, that can come out and interact with the public so in areas like our county and our Aboriginal territory, which is most of southeastern Oregon and beyond, we can have our communities be aware of why it’s important to conserve these heritage locations.
The downside of it is really based on intent. So while there are many people that are part of our communities that want to protect heritage, they’re always the few bad apples, I guess I would call them, that are looking for more information through these roadshows to go out and privately excavate and collect heritage at heritage sites. So really I like to look at the positive aspect of it and about how this can be an outreach opportunity to further educate not only on archaeology, but also about the Tribe’s heritage. And there are reasons why we value these places that archaeologists call, “archaeology sites”.
Miller: That archaeologists call, “archaeology sites”. What do you call them?
Timon: Well for us, they’re just our cultural landscapes. Archaeology, by definition is a study of past cultures and it wasn’t until probably mid to late 20th century that there were more conversations that happened between Indigenous groups and archaeological departments and the academics within them to talk about the continuity of the use of these sites, and the continuity of the cultures that made these sites. So, that’s really something that’s changed over the course of my lifetime that I can appreciate, and I’m hoping that more will occur.
Miller: What kinds of changes have you seen? My understanding is you’ve been working in archaeology for a little more than 30 years. In terms of having a seat at the table as a Native person and the inclusion of Native perspectives and voices and decision making as well, what kinds of changes have you seen within the field of archaeology?
Timon: Most broadly, I think a perfect example is that the Society for American Archaeology, which is the premier North American Archaeological Society for professional archaeologists, used to have as their number one objective [the] protection of the scientific record. And there weren’t… even though the very first president of the SAA was Native, after that point there was very little if any Native involvement in that society. And coming full circle, after all of these attempts at greater discussions and having Native communities be at the table in these conversations about these heritage sites, once again we have the president of the Society for American Archaeology who is Native American. And so there have been changes in the mission, and their statements on repatriation of our ancestral remains and other things that may or may not have happened if there weren’t tribal voices in that process.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about Portland State University’s Archaeology Roadshow. It’s a series of online presentations that’s going to be held throughout the month of June. I’m talking with Diane Timon, director of the culture and heritage department for the Burns Paiute Tribe, and Virginia Butler, emerita professor of archaeology at Portland State University and the organizer of this Archaeology Roadshow.
Virginia Butler, you started by saying that you want to expand the public’s understanding of archaeology so it’s bigger than just say, Indiana Jones looking for some treasure. How much archaeology is happening right now in Oregon? Where is it happening and who’s doing it?
Butler: It’s happening everywhere, all the time. Basically, anytime there’s ground disturbing activity that involves a state or federal permit and sometimes local permits, there has to be an assessment of the impact of those projects to the archaeological record. And in the context of that private consulting companies or the agencies themselves evaluate what those impacts would be. Now back to Diane’s important points, in the context of evaluating impacts, consultation and developing corporations need to take place that evaluate the concerns Tribes have about what cultural resources might be damaged or hurt in the process of those developments. But truly, I just do not think the public is aware of the scale of archaeology that’s taking place around our state. Again, the roadshow is an effort not only for the archaeologists to share out but for the archaeologists to learn among themselves what kinds of projects are going on.
Miller: Is there an example that comes to mind - you mentioned the BLM earlier, or the U.S. Forest Service? So say, if there is a proposed timber sale or something else happens on U.S. Forest Service land, have there been significant archaeological findings that happened because they were required by federal law?
Butler: Absolutely. And one that will be featured in the roadshow through various talks and videos relates to the massive mining tailings associated with the Chinese and others who mined a lot of northeast Oregon in the 19th and early 20th century. Ahead of timber sales associated with the sales on the Malheur National Forest, for example, researchers identified massive amounts of tailings that had become obscured through forest growth. And the efforts relating to Chinese efforts, or the Chinese history there, is kind of bringing some of this history to life again that had become obscured through the way we tell our history.
The list goes on and on. Another example would relate to a project in the Dalles, that archaeologists bought a storefront in downtown, the Dalles. And in the context of learning the history of their building and their environments, documented that there was an absolutely clear Chinatown in the Dalles that had been lost to history. So, archaeology keeps bringing this back to life. And back to Diane’s good point about archaeology in the past, has tended to think about it;
we’re studying the past, we’re studying about these traces of the past. We’re bringing this material forward to tell new stories to help us today. So like Diane was emphasizing, archaeology is shifting from a thinking about these traces simply existing in the past to they have an existence today. They can tell us things about ourselves now.
Miller: Diane Timon, this gets to a phrase that I think you and I have actually talked about on this show before but didn’t really delve deeply into: decolonized archaeology. What would that look like and how would it be different from the way archaeology and archaeologists have operated for more than 100 years?
Timon: Decolonized archaeology can’t really be defined as one particular methodology, other than making sure that all of the folks that have an interest in a location - a cultural interest in that location - are involved in the process. And what we appreciate and I know some other tribes, Navajo Nation as an example,
what we appreciate is if there’s a researcher that wants to do work in our area that they contact us first and ask us what kind of interest we might have and what kind of prohibitions we might have. And they really have community involvement to make sure we’re collaborating throughout the entire process, from the concept to inception [and] on. I think that that’s the best way to go about things, that way you don’t have angry people showing up out at your excavation the day that you put your first shovel in the ground because they were unaware anything was even happening there.
Miller: That’s what you want to happen, how often does that happen? That you get the call before the digs start?
Timon: It’s becoming more and more frequent. And we live in a wonderful state where our state agencies … there’s a legislative commission on Indian services, and there’s also a culture cluster where agencies and Tribal representatives speak a lot about projects that are happening around the state, as Virginia talked about. We typically become aware of things very early on and can have those good working relationships with academic researchers. It’s a developing relationship that has a ways to go, but has also come a long ways.
Miller: You mentioned at the top the double-edged sword; that you like the idea of spreading the word about the changes in archaeology and the idea of the public ethos of this field now, but the flip side is that some people you said actually might come to various events so they can actually get a scoop and find out where they could dig up cultural objects. I imagine this would be, not for those people who are really just looking to steal things, in a sense, but if people have pieces of tribal culture in their possession, what do you want them to do?
Timon: As Virginia mentioned and our tribe believes, those items still have the energy of our ancestors on them and they were meant to be in the place that they were deposited by our ancestors. So when they’re taken away from that location, it creates a disruption in the spiritual wellness of our ancestors and our living community. Today we find that more and more people are realizing that America’s pastime of going out collecting artifacts probably wasn’t the best thing to do. We have in the past received calls and emails asking to return those things and the tribe welcomes that. It’s not the best scenario, but it’s the best that we can do once items have been taken from their original location [and] for us to be able to have them at least back in our homelands.
Miller: Diane Timon and Virginia Butler, thanks very much for joining us.
Butler and Timon: Thank you very much for having us.
Miller: Diane Timon is an enrolled member and director of the Culture and Heritage department for the Burns Paiute Tribe. Virginia Butler is emerita professor of archaeology at Portland State University. She’s also the organizer of the Archaeology Roadshow. It’s going to be fully online this year, with various presentations held throughout the month of June.
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